High gas and food prices cut travel, but you can find fun near home

June 15, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Sun Reporter

So you've all but given up on the idea of going on vacation this summer.

Higher food and energy costs have drained your budget, gas is a fortune, and those credit card balances are already big enough. And forget flying to Europe, where the weakening dollar has made Americans feel like the poor relations. In fact, forget flying period; fares are rising, security lines are growing and airlines keep tacking fees on everything from extra bags to extra legroom.

The stress of it all is enough to keep anyone home. And that's just where more and more people are expected to go for "staycation," - a vacation spent in your own backyard, literally, or nearby. About a third of the state's tourists are Maryland residents, and officials expect that percentage to grow. Already, the state parks have seen a surge in camping, a likely result of travelers' curtailing plans.

"Most Americans feel that a vacation is their right," said Margot A. Amelia, executive director of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. "I think people's pocketbooks are a little pinched, and they will go closer to home this year."

Several trends have converged to make the "staycation" the hottest new destination, said Lois Backon, vice president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute.

"People are realizing there's no place like home," Backon said. "They're starting to really read the local Chamber of Commerce promotions on what to do in their area and trying to find day trips. It's almost more relaxing than planning a big overwhelming trip and the expense associated with that."

And one workplace expert has suggested that shorter vacations closer to home could save your job. Workers concerned about job stability are likely to ask for fewer days off and to promise to check e-mails and take work calls, said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of outplacement consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Challenger's advice: Head to a nearby national park with a picnic lunch - on a Saturday - to get refreshed for work on Monday.

Fundamental to the idea of a staycation is having fun. It's not the same as taking a week off to caulk the bathroom, clean out the garage or paint.

Baltimore-area residents can stay close to home, saving on transportation and lodging costs, and still swim at a beach or lake, go camping, boating or hiking, visit museums and other cultural attractions, take tours, explore unfamiliar towns, try new restaurants.

To get the most out of your vacation, careful planning is key. After all, a week at the ocean sets its own agenda - beach, boardwalk, maybe fishing or crabbing or parasailing. But to really enjoy your staycation - and to convince the kids that it isn't a sham - you need to invest some time. Map out activities day by day. Look for new places to go and things to do. Set a start time each morning, so half the day doesn't get whittled away. Resolve to turn off the TV. At the same time, strike a balance between scheduling and being flexible. Backon suggested letting each child pick a day's activity.

Amelia recommended starting with a Destination Maryland guide. Besides listing attractions it includes a Maryland Welcome! Passport card that promises savings at 250 attractions, restaurants, retailers and accommodations.

Or stop at the library to check out local guidebooks, make use of tourism Web sites and AAA's magazine for listings of events and attractions and discount offers, and even better, freebies. The Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association's Web site lists restaurants offering dining deals and has printable coupons for free museum admissions.

When it comes to information on an area, local residents "think they know it all, but often they don't," Tim Leffel, travel columnist and author of Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune.

Leffel suggested coming up with a framework of plans but warned against overscheduling every minute.

"We as Americans are especially bad at that," Leffel said. "A lot of the most interesting things in travels are things you didn't plan on."

You can travel roads you've traveled a thousand times before, with a vacationer's eye. Baltimore's Charles Street and Falls Road in the city and Baltimore County, for instance, are among Maryland byways. The network of roads has its own guidebook, Maryland Byways, designed to take travelers off the interstates and highways and pointing out antique rows, farmers' markets, wineries, attractions and historic sites, such as the Baltimore Streetcar Museum on Falls Road and Homewood House Museum on North Charles. Or get out of the car and tour on foot, maybe with one of Baltimore Ghost Tours haunted walking tours of Fells Point and Mount Vernon.

For other specifics on where to spend time, here are some ideas from tourism officials and travel experts, even Wal-Mart.

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